The Sex Education and Ms Marvel writer Bisha K Ali is launching a screenwriting fellowship with Netflix and Sky that will give six people from under-represented communities a year’s salary in an effort to make the TV industry more inclusive.
Ali hopes that taking away the “sense of clawing financial instability” that many young writers face will reduce the barriers to entry for people from black, Asian and other minority backgrounds and help mitigate the effect the pandemic is having on bringing new voices into television.
According to the media regulator Ofcom’s most recent diversity report, “progress is still far too slow” in TV employing a wider range of people. However, Ali says the way television is set up, with emerging writers having to drop everything in order to meet programme makers in central London, makes it prohibitively expensive for many to get a start.
She said the idea for the fellowship was “based on my own experiences” when she was struggling to make ends meet in her quest to move from being a domestic violence support worker to writing for TV. At one point she considered selling her sofa to pay her rent and moved to Manchester because she could not afford to live in London.
Ali said she felt a “kind of isolation in the industry on my way up … I feel like it’s inherently hostile with the way it’s set up.”
She said the first year or two of being a TV writer in the UK involved having a series of general meetings with production companies, which for many meant “getting the tube into London, finding somewhere to set up camp for the day – if you don’t want to sit in a cold park – paying your way between meetings if you’re not getting paid by whoever you’re meeting with, [and] getting time off work at short notice because this really cool producer can meet with you tomorrow.
“That’s just not possible for the majority of people, so we can talk about diversity in terms of inclusion and getting more voices on screen and that kind of thing, but how can we get more voices if those barriers are just not being looked at?”
The idea for a fund came to Ali four years ago when she posted on Facebook that the process was “prohibitively expensive” for people on low incomes. In the post, she wrote: “It all feels like it’s stacked against people with lower incomes – disproportionately women of colour, obviously, because of wage disparity – and I don’t feel like there’s funding out there to support new writers in this space, to match the attempts at supporting ‘diversity’ in these industries.”
When she became successful, Ali thought about how “can I be good on my word and set something up”. She said diversity was talked about “forever” but many young writers felt “just give us money, that will help change that pipeline”.
Industry bodies such as ScreenSkills have been trying to help, awarding about £1.3m in bursaries to 1,200 people over the last two years, which is often used for practical needs ranging from laptops to wet weather gear.
But Ali said the answer also to improving diversity was: “Hire us, commission us, pay us … it is not rocket science. We can do studies, we can look into it as much as possible, [but] commission us and if you fear it because it’s a risk, surround us with people that you know. I’m not a commissioner [so] what I can do is try to give us more opportunity to be undeniable.”
Ali has been developing projects with Netflix and began speaking to its vice-president of original series, Anne Mensah, on the issue about two years ago, and “then the pandemic happened” and they accelerated their plans and got Sky involved.
“My fear was the pandemic is going to take us X steps backwards in terms of taking risks on new voices, so we have to be supporting and making us less risky prospects,” Ali said. “How you make us less risky is by building credibility, so that’s why the fellowship will get you your first television credit … plus mentors, connections … [and] hopefully creative partnerships that can go on into the future.”
Ali will help the six successful applicants over their year of the fellowship, which begins in September. Applications are due by 18 June.